Harpies and Peanuts

Wilde attributes this joke to Carlyle: a biography of Michelangelo that would make no mention of the works of Michelangelo. So complex is reality, and so fragmentary and simplified is history, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, almost infinite, number of biographies of a man, each emphasizing different facts; we would have to read many of them before we realized that the protagonist was the same.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek

In the early 16th century, aspiring artist Bartolomeo Torri was thrown out of his teacher’s home after he got a little too absorbed in his anatomy lessons: “for he kept so many limbs and pieces of corpses under his bed and all over his rooms, that they poisoned the whole house,” wrote Giorgio Vasari. Cherubino Alberti fixated on medieval siege engines and filled his home with model catapults. Later, Franz Xavier Messerschmidt believed he was pinched and abused by a “Spirit of Proportion” who could be warded off by pulling grotesque contorted expressions, which Messerschmidt recorded in sculpture.

The cover of Born Under Saturn

Margot & Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn is a history of “the Character and Conduct of Artists,” as the subtitle puts it. And, yeah, a lot of these guys are characters. Others were normal, well-behaved types, but, honestly, you’re not going to read this book for Rubens or Bernini. But Born Under Saturn isn’t a freak show. The Wittkowers are analyzing popular ideas about artists, and although stories of eccentricities, feuds, and crimes make this book more readable than a straight academic treatise they also serve a purpose: the varied mass of biography breaks down cultural stereotypes about artists.

This article is less fun than Born Under Saturn but is a surprisingly on-the-nose distillation of this book’s thesis—I read it and kept thinking “Wow, this guy was really influenced by Born Under Saturn.” Then I got to the end and realized, hey, this guy cowrote Born Under Saturn. (Although according to the NYRB Classics edition it was mostly Margot’s work.) Before the Renaissance, Western culture pegged artists as craftspeople, like locksmiths or carpenters. A stonemason and a sculptor both worked with their hands. Same thing, right? So artists ended up stuck with the masons and weavers in craft guilds that controlled way too many details of their lives and work. During the Renaissance artists established a new, classier, guild-free persona for their profession, and ended up with a new stereotype—an “artistic temperament”—tied to classical ideas about humors and astrological types. Craftspeople were mercurial, but artists were saturnine or melancholic, and tended to alternate between idleness and spurts of intense work. The latter was supposed to be a sign of their new status—artists weren’t laborers working for wages; art had some kind of mysterious intrinsic value unrelated to the hours spent on it—but it should sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s encountered modern theories connecting artistic ability and manic depression.

But although some of Born Under Saturn’s artists were melancholic, some were happy. Some starved in garrets; some became rich. Some were obsessive loners who wouldn’t let anyone see a painting until it was finished (one hammered chunks out of his own fresco when it was unveiled too early); some were gregarious. Whatever the reigning stereotype—and they did change over the years—the Wittkowers have exceptions.

Born Under Saturn also critiques the psychoanalytical approach to art: the idea that it’s possible to deduce a psychological portrait from an artist’s work. Many artists’ works are at odds with their personalities: the Wittkowers reproduce a peaceful landscape by Adam Elsheimer before detailing what sounds like a severe case of depression. Analytical overconfidence compounds the problem. A lot of biographers of the psychoanalytic school just don’t have the background knowledge to intelligently interpret art.

The Wittkowers cite psychoanalyst Ernest Jones’s analysis of Andrea del Sarto’s painting Madonna of the Harpies, depicting the Madonna atop a pedestal decorated with carved harpies. Jones decided the carvings were a clue to del Sarto’s relationship with his wife. But it wouldn’t have been del Sarto who decided to slip in some harpies! It was a commission, and patrons usually gave commissioned artists detailed laundry lists of what they wanted to see. Anyway, saints and virgins sitting on pagan carvings wasn’t an unknown subject in Renaissance art. I couldn’t find the Wittkowers’ examples on the web—both were by a monk named Filippo Lippi, who presumably had no marital problems. But he did have an illegitimate son named Filippino, and in one of Filippino’s paintings St. Catherine’s clearly planted herself on a throne held up by little harpies. Or possibly sphinxes. (Wikipedia says the carving is a harpy, or does as I type this. Of course, as I type this Wikipedia also says Filippino Lippi was born “Filippo Lollipop.” Which, if you look at the revision history, should tell you how long I’ve had this review half-finished on my hard drive.) To Renaissance viewers Madonna of the Harpies represented the triumph of Christianity over paganism. That’s what you do when your religion wins: get your saints together, carve up some harpies, and sit on ‘em. Sort of like that little dance football players do when they make a touchdown.

The cover of The Comics Journal 290

Coincidentally, around the time I finished Born Under Saturn I got my copy of The Comics Journal #290, with the roundtable discussion on David Michaelis’s flawed Charles Schulz bio. I’d been going back and forth on whether or not I wanted to read the thing and I’ve finally settled on not (so take this as a reaction to The Comics Journal #290 rather than the biography itself). It seems the rough consensus among knowledgeable critics is that this is a misleading book… not factually wrong as far as it goes, but reportedly Michaelis skirted around chunks of Schulz’s life and created a Charles Schulz more depressed and alienated than the man truly was. And Michaelis psychoanalyzes Schulz through his work. This is the focus of R. C. Harvey’s roundtable essays, and in light of what I’d just read in Born Under Saturn I found them very interesting. According to Harvey, “Because [Michaelis] is not attuned to what cartooning is and what a cartoonist does, he cannot apprehend the significance of some of what he encounters.”

So, as Harvey details, Michaelis spends a lot of time musing over the Peanuts gang’s big heads and small bodies, apparently not realizing that a big head on a little body is a common cartoonists’ trick when depicting children. He speculates on what might have caused Schulz to change his style between the fifties and the sixties, not realizing that most cartoonists’ styles evolve over the course of their careers—not for psychological reasons, but because they’ve gained experience, honed their style, developed shortcuts, matured artistically, or experimented with technique.

Chip Kidd designed a really kickass cover for Schulz and Peanuts… but it might have been even more appropriate had it featured Snoopy standing on a pedestal carved with Beagle Scouts.